Cibele

Hello folks. I wrote half of this review a year ago and never finished it. Finding it now, I don't really like my writing in it, but I'm fed up editing it, so here it is.

The negative reviews on Cibele’s Steam page seem to come largely from people who had different expectations, so I think it’s best that we address them first: I don’t think that it’s accurate to call Cibele a video game. While there are game-like elements, it doesn’t really contain any challenges and I wouldn’t really say that it’s something that you “play”.

Cibele is an interactive story about a teenage girl named Nina who falls in love with a boy online while playing an MMORPG called Valtameri. It’s only a few hours long and takes place across 3 acts. Each act is a combination of playing Valtameri, FMV of Nina in real life, and exploring Nina’s computer as if it was your own desktop. The Valtameri gameplay exists only as a vehicle for Nina and Blake’s conversations - it isn’t really a game in itself.

We join Nina in the middle of her story. She has been playing Valtameri for a long time and she already has some sort of relationship with Blake. We are made to feel deeply voyeuristic here: we have access to Nina’s computer and we see her world through camera angles that hint at some kind of hidden camera setup. Everything feels deeply personal. Here, Cibele does a great job of showing us how an interactive story can be more than a film and more than a game. If this was a game, you’d be hunting for a clue or a solution to a puzzle, but in Cibele, you’re just in the moment, looking in on someone else’s life. It’s a powerful setup. Each act is another window into the relationship, further along the timeline, and as you work through the scenes you experience the changes in their lives as they grow closer.

Cibele excels in its multimedia storytelling. You learn about Nina’s thoughts through file names on her desktop and the files she hides away, while you learn about Blake through stilted push-to-talk voice communications in Valtameri. The voice conversations have a certain cadence that I find so familiar as an ex MMO player - they’re put together beautifully and really hit the mark for me.

Cibele definitely isn’t for everyone, but if you spent your youth in an MMO or you like multimedia storytelling and interactive stories it might be worth a shot.

Steaming: Braid

My steam library is comparatively small, but it still contains a fairly substantial pile of shame. The only way out is through. In alphabetical order.

I’m not sure how I missed it, but somehow, I forgot to talk about Braid. I played through it after Binding of Isaac, I suppose - that’s where it’d be in alphabetical order, so that must be when it was.

I’d heard a lot about Braid. One of the true original indie stars, it catapulted its author, Jonathan Blow, into the headlines and did the same for indie games development. Suddenly, anyone could make a game. It was an interesting time to be into games and the industry. I read a lot about it, but I didn’t actually play Braid. It was released in 2008 and I was catching up on games I’d missed while I’d been away travelling. I think I was knee-deep in Bioshock. Well, it’s time to fix that. This is a puzzle game based around time travel, and the manipulation of time: throughout the various worlds, you gain various powers over the passage of time and the world reacts to them in unusual ways. You must collect puzzle pieces in each world to complete a series of jigsaw puzzles.

Braid is gorgeous: it looks like a moving painting, and that’s exactly the aesthetic it was going for. It is, however, a little dated by today’s standards, and I don’t mean to sound like one of those people who talk about framerates when I say that: I just mean that it somehow looks as old as it is, which I wouldn’t have expected from this kind of game. Perhaps it’s more down to how character movement in 2D gaming has changed. Spelunky, for example, has made the platformer look so much more refined than Braid. It’s not exactly a criticism, but it certainly struck me.

Braid’s not about movement, though. Not like Spelunky is. And it’s not about looks, although they must have been a part of it’s success. It’s about the puzzles, and Braid is a brain teaser for sure. Where Antichamber felt like it was trying to be clever, Braid actually is, and the solution to almost every level in this game is reached with experimentation and lateral thinking that makes you feel genuinely clever. You often find yourself moving in the right direction, close to reaching the jigsaw piece that you’re trying to grab, but not quite making it. You try again, and again, getting closer each time. Eventually, you crack it, and it all fits together. Where Antichamber failed in this was that the solutions often felt a little too organic: I felt like I’d cheated my way through rather than solving the room in the intended fashion. With Braid, there are a few moments like that (in one puzzle I think I glitched a key through the floor) but overall the balance feels right. It felt like I was coming up with the solution myself, but the solution wasn’t painful to execute each time.

Braid is on the short-but-sweet side of gaming, clocking in at 5.9 hours for me according to Steam, and none of that time is wasted. There’s no filler here - barely even any story, in fact - and I was left feeling happy that I’d bought it and played it. I was a little disappointed by the difficulty, though: I’d heard so much about what a hard game it was and went in hoping for a real challenge, but I never really found myself stuck for long. I suspect that feeling is down to the hype surrounding the game rather than my ability to solve puzzles.

BBQ Pulled Pork & Ribs

As Autumn rolled in, I saw a clear day coming up on the weather forecast and decided to spend it in the garden working on my barbeque smoking skills. I wanted to run out my latest bible of meat, the Pitt Cue Co Cookbook, but I’m far from a barbeque expert, so I decided to keep it simple and try some pulled pork. The book says that a full smoker works better, so I decided to whack some ribs in too to keep it busy.

The nice thing about these two recipes is that they both use one rub and one sauce, so I didn’t have too much to do in order to throw it all together. The Pitt Cue Co House Rub was simple enough, and is absolutely gorgeous - I’ve been throwing it in everything since. The Mother Sauce, on the other hand, is, in my kitchen, pretty tough to put together, so I doctored it rather heavily. Here's my ingredients list:

Cheapskate Mother Sauce

400ml beef stock
1 shallot
10g butter
40ml Marsala
40ml Ketchup
15ml Cider Vinegar
8ml Worcestershire sauce
1/4tsp Tabasco
15g brown sugar

I have no doubt that it’s nowhere near as good, but who the hell has dry-aged beef trim and pork dripping knocking about in their kitchen?

I have a 57cm Weber Kettle. I used the minion method for my coals, piling up a load of coals on one side of the kettle and pouring lit coals on top. This works, but it’s quite hard to get the coals into a decent pile that will burn well - I’ve since learned about the snake method, which I’ll try next time. I stuck a water tray underneath the meat, and also put one above the coals as the Pitt Cue Co book suggests. Apparently a full smoker stays quite moist inside, but with less meat it’s worth adding more water to help recreate that environment. I soaked a good few handfuls of whiskey chips in a bucket and threw about half of them on top of the coals at the start, adding the rest bit by bit throughout the day. I’m not very happy with this method: I shouldn’t have opened the grill as much. In future, the snake method plus a load of wood on top of the coals should make this better.

The pork prep was pretty straight-forward - I trimmed some fat and covered it in rub as thoroughly as I could. The ribs were basically the same, but with the extra step of removing the membrane from the underside. This is a bit weird and I’d never done it before, but it turned out to be super easy. Weber has a handy guide that’s pretty easy to follow.

With that, I fired up my chimney starter, poured the lit coals in, put the meat on the grill, and left it. I’m pretty bad at this bit - I’m not used to the temperature of my grill yet so I check it a lot, and I peek at the meat too much to see how it’s cooking. Once I’ve done a few more smokes I’m sure I’ll calm down a bit!

1kg of pork took 8 hours, and probably could have coped with another. The ribs took 3 hours and 40 minutes.

The ribs got a brush with mother sauce, then went back on the grill for a bit. The pork got wrapped in foil to rest and then torn up and smothered in that lovely mother sauce. The end result was some really nice pulled pork, and the best ribs I’ve ever eaten. I’m no rib expert, mind. I’ll definitely be doing both of these recipes again: they both fit onto my BBQ nicely and they make for an incredible meal.

Bloodborne

Bloodborne is the other game that I absolutely had to buy a PS4 for. The latest in the Souls series of games, it throws out shields, replaces them with guns, and goes all Lovecraftian. I’m all over it.

The first thing you notice, coming from Dark Souls to Bloodborne, is that the game moves a lot faster. It’s smoother, too: I was initially pretty sceptical about the worth of quick-stepping when locked onto a target instead of rolling, but it allows for a rather neat fine-tuning of your position in fights versus the rather long and unwieldy Dark Souls roll. Bloodborne wants you to dance lightly around your opponents and avoid hits, rather than survive the pummelling or get well clear every time an enemy swings their sword. It does away with any kind of encumbrance too, opening up the entire wardrobe of armour to every character. It’s hard to argue with these changes. Sure, they reduce the number of fighting styles available to you in the game, but Dark Souls’ heavy-set warrior build’s slowness was a punishment, not a boon: if you could have had the fast rolling with the heavy armour, you’d have taken it in a second. In Bloodborne, that’s what you get. Sort of.

You get no shield, and you get no armour. Not really, anyway. There are armour sets, and they do help you out, a bit, but to be honest, not one of them is going to save you. The emphasis in Bloodborne is definitely on not getting hit at all, ever. If you do get hit (and you will), you have a chance to claim back your lost hit points by successfully attacking an enemy in return for a short time after you receive the damage. This means that the best defence is a good offence and keeps the game focused on attacking. You find yourself running towards the next enemy, diving straight in, trying to get back the health you lost on the last bad guy. Each attack sprays blood into the air, coating your character, and very quickly you feel rather similar to the beasts that you’re fighting.

So yeah, you’re fighting beasts and stuff. The plot is, as you’d expect from a Souls game, quite subtle, but runs deep and invites plenty of theories and discussion. I’m not going to spoil anything, but I will say that it manages to be reasonably unpredictable and manages to be rather more complex than you initially expect. The “Who’s the real monster” trope implied by the brutality of the combat and the blood splattered across your armour never really manifests beyond the vibe introduced by Dark Souls (Probably Demon Souls, actually, but I haven’t played that, so we’ll stick with comparing to Dark souls for now): the monsters and people you destroy feel like important characters, parts of a world. Killing them feels like a negative action, like you’re ending a story too early or writing them out of a book.

I’ve completed Bloodborne, but in so many ways, I haven’t. I don’t understand it, not even after reading up on the plot and trying to piece things together from various wikis and videos. I haven’t finished the chalice dungeons, Bloodborne’s randomly generated attempt at some kind of procedural Souls game that, despite how it sounds, does have an end and a storyline, of sorts. For the first time, I feel like it might be worth getting all the achievements in a game, too. After the credits rolled and I caught my breath, I just started playing again. I don’t really feel done with this game at all. As if that all wasn’t enough, the expansion, The Old Hunters, was released last week, and I’m currently bashing my head against the first boss, who is absolutely incredible, and rock solid. I’m reminded, and not for the first time in a Souls game, of World of Warcraft’s raiding, where we would wipe over and over again on the same boss, each time shaving a little more of their health off, until eventually we mastered the strategy and defeated them. Souls games have the same vibe, and I love it.

Essen Spiel '15: Day Four

The last day! About half of these games were played in the halls and the other half were played in the hotel lobby as we sifted through our purchases.

Queen’s Architect

Queen's Architect has fantastic mechanics: your workers are on hexagons which dock into your little player sheet, and as you use them they rotate, changing which point is docked with your sheet. Some workers get better as they work, some get tired. When they complete a full rotation, they retire, but you can rotate them the other way by sending them to the inn. That whole thing is great, but it’s just solitaire - you barely interact with the other players at all. As a result, I felt that this game was missing an important piece of the puzzle. It feels like the next game to leverage this mechanic will nail it, though, and we’ll have something to shout about.

Microfilms

Microfilms is a spy-themed microgame based around trying to figure out who’s who by stealing looks at other player’s hands and trading information. It’s fast and cute, but it’s got a few little nuances which make it quite hard to teach. I like it a lot, but I’ve played it wrong a few times because the rules are a bit fiddly and not fully explained on the cards. I bought it though, and I love it.

The Foreign King

The Foreign King is a remarkably good little strategy game in a very small box. The theme was a bit dull and pasted on, but the four of us that played remained interested until the end and it was never clear who was going to win. Definitely a good game, not sure that it’s a fun game.

Go

The age-old classic. Who doesn’t like Go? Why do I play anything else?

Cash n’ Guns

Quite the opposite of Go. Cash n' Guns is not a new game (in fact, I own it), but there were 8 of us and there was a table free. Sina got utterly shot up. I did not, but Chris won by a mile.

Funemployed

I grabbed the last box of Funemployed available at the Breaking Games booth and couldn’t wait to play it. It delivered on every level: I was forced to attempt an Australian accent in public and Lizzy revealed herself as a dangerously enthusiastic personal trainer. Comedy gold.

Codenames

Some games are popular because they just work, no matter who you are and what you do. Codenames is that kind of game: it’s easy to play, it’s a party game, it has barely any rules, and it’s loads of fun. Word games are universal, because we all know words. Instant winner.

Dark Stories

Dave gave this one star out of five, but I enjoyed it to some extent. In Dark Stories, one person reads out a rather brief description of a scenario which is, in the cases we played, not particularly dark, and the other players ask questions to piece together the story. The stories we played were a bit dumb, but they did keep us guessing and they were something to talk about. It’s not incredible, but I certainly didn’t hate it.

And that was it, that was Essen Spiel ‘15! It was awesome. It cost me a small fortune, but I’m so glad that I went. Hopefully I’ll be able to make it next year! Thank you to everyone who came along: you’re all awesome.

Essen Spiel '15: Day Three

Yes, I'm still writing about Essen. Onwards!

Artificium

We arrived at the hall as a group of 6, which is a ridiculous number when trying to demo games, but Artificium seated 6 and had a free table, so we played it. I found it ok, but many members of the group were less charitable. It had a bunch of dumb action cards which let you steal from other players, which screwed up the strategy element of the rest of the game somewhat.

I think that the box art is hilarious.

Oh, you are a naughty wizard

7 Wonders Duel

Probably, possibly, the game of the show? Everything I disliked about 7 Wonders (which isn’t much) is gone from this 2 player version. 7 Wonders Duel is fast and harsh and the action starts right away. Every move you can make is incredibly aggressive. We queued for ages to grab a table for this and I don’t regret it at all, it was great. I’ll be buying a copy, I think - it was sadly sold out when we got there though.

Exoplanets

Exoplanets has a great theme, but the game fails to deliver. Instantly forgettable. I really like the orbital mechanic that it has, where otherwise unrelated planets can affect each other, but it felt like none of those effects really mattered. Perhaps it’s a game that rewards patience, and all of its little mechanics create a delicate, intricate game among advanced players, but sadly I’ll never find out.

Dungeon Fighter

I’ve been wanting to play this for ages because the premise sounded hilarious. Dungeon Fighter is a dungeon crawler in which you attack by throwing dice onto a target, the monsters and weapons affecting how you throw. For example, one monster made us jump and throw the dice in midair. It was indeed pretty funny, but now that I’ve played it, I don’t really feel the need to play it again.

Welcome To The Dungeon

It’s hard to describe what’s good about Welcome To The Dungeon. There's this guy, right, who’s going to go into a dungeon, and on your turn, you either add a monster to the dungeon or take some armour or weaponry off the guy, right? Or, if you think it’s all got a bit much, you can pass and leave the round. The last person still in the round then takes the poor, shivering naked warrior and drives him through the dungeon full of monsters you made. If he makes it through, the player wins a point. Does that make sense? The beauty of it comes in the player interactions, when your friend lets a little smirk slip as they drop another monster onto the deck, or someone passes just a little bit too quickly and you wonder what they know. It’s nice. If I didn’t own so many player-interaction-heavy bluffing type games I’d be all over it.

Kabuki

I’m no good at memory games, I sucked hard at Kabuki. Not my cup of tea at all. It’s all about spotting very similar looking masks in piles of cards, and I could barely tell the difference between them when they were right in front of me, let alone when I was trying to remember if the latest card matched one we put down 10 rounds ago.

Me Want Cookies

I made us play Me Want Cookies because it was a giant version with plushy pieces. It was a kids game where you had to solve mazes. It was not good.

Push-a-Monster

Push-a-Monster, on the other hand, is a kid’s game that adults can enjoy too. It’s a simple dexterity game where you try to push as many monsters as you can onto a small platform, and the person that knocks the fewest off wins. The scoring mechanic is extremely cool: each time you knock a monster off, your opponent gets a rectangular monster token. At the end of the game you put your tokens together in a line and the person with the longest line wins. It’s a nice way to avoid counting.

Liguria

Played with boats again. Love them boats.

Day 3 was a bit all over the place - lots of fun games though. I also did most of my shopping on this day so I spent it lugging bags around, which really sucked. The Spiel metagame is all about buying games before they run out, playing the games you want to without queueing for too long, and not carrying around too many heavy bags.